(Cover is from a different edition. My book’s cover image is not worth searching out or scanning in.)
In a nutshell:
One of Jane Austen’s earliest works, Northanger Abbey concerns seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a good-hearted but naive girl who is taken by friends of the family to stay with them in Bath. There, she is introduced to the witty and warm Henry Tilney and his equally warm sister, Eleanor. Catherine also becomes fast friends with a shallow girl named Isabella Thorpe, and forms an acquaintance with Isabella’s brother, John. Between the Tilneys and the Thorpes, Catherine’s social experience broadens considerably, culminating in her invitation to the Tilney’s family home, Northanger Abbey.
I first read Northanger Abbey when I was about the age of its protagonist, Catherine Morland. Strangely enough, I think I’m of a better age to appreciate it now. That Jane Austen uses Northanger Abbey to poke fun at the gothic tales popular in her time is fairly well known. But her satire does not just have this object alone; romantic tropes and the naivete of teenage girls are also the targets of Austen’s pen. And when I was a teenager reading Northanger Abbey, I had not yet exhausted myself with romantic tropes and could not quite see the affection underlying Austen’s gentle satire about Catherine. I was not yet a reader with the experience and distance to fully appreciate what Austen does with Northanger Abbey.
But now, almost a decade later, I fell in love with Northanger Abbey. Almost every conversation involving the Henry Tilney is a treat, as he is rarely serious, and his humor is always good-natured. The banter between Henry and his sister comes off as very natural and affectionate.
Although she is, in the novel, too socially inexperienced to rapid-fire respond to Henry’s banter, Catherine did get in a few nice rejoinders. But Catherine’s charm is mostly in her complete lack of affectation. This is in stark contrast with Isabella Thorpe, who is so practiced in the art of affectation, she gets careless. I liked that Catherine was honest about her opinions and her ignorance of certain things. She wasn’t trying to pass herself as anything other than what she was. (I liked her complaint that reading history was dull, partly because there were no women in it).
While Isabella and John Thorpe are not admirable characters, they were a lot of fun to read about. Catherine’s slowness to realize Isabella’s true nature just serves to make Isabella that more transparent (and ridiculous) to the reader.
As with Jane Austen’s Emma, Northanger Abbey has a hinging moment where the heroine gets carried away in a situation and makes a mistake for which she is soon ashamed. Emma sacrifices kindness for the fleeting pleasure of a witty, but mean, comment. Catherine lets her imagination run away from her and comes to an outlandish conclusion about Henry Tilney’s father. In both cases, the male ‘hero’, who in both books is older than the heroine by some years, gently shows them their error. What I love in both Emma and Northanger Abbey is that neither man makes overmuch of the mistake. They both trust so much in the good character of the heroine, that they only need make her aware of the stumbling moment for her to set herself back on course.
For all that Northanger Abbey is a satire and features witty banter, there is a real sweetness to it too that I found endearing. I am encouraged by this experience to begin re-reading all the other Austens as well. Mansfield Park might be the next one as the time I read it is so long ago, although my new beautiful copy of Pride & Prejudice also beckons.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Bibliofreakblog – “If there is one thing that bothered me, it is that when Catherine’s love interest returns her affection, I didn’t see much basis for it.”
Literary Omnivore – “The narrator in Northanger Abbey is a character unto herself; she even goes through a character arc of her own, evolving from a Gothic narrator thwarted by her solidly middle-class and normal subjects to an efficient narrator who doesn’t twist and overanalyze the facts of her story. It’s utterly charming.”
Steph & Tony Investigate! – “Northanger Abbey still isn’t my favorite Austen, but I acknowledge that I was remiss in considering it a spiritless ghost of an Austen novel. It’s diverting, charming, and features that classic Austen wit and sense of humor.”